THE BLOG
01/03/2013 10:28 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Philosophy and Drama

It is arguable that philosophy and drama never go well together, no matter what form the conjunction takes. A number of classical scholars have suggested that Plato's philosophical dialogues were performed as live dramas at some of the great Athenian dramatic festivals such as the City Dionysia. But while there have been many famous philosophical dialogues written since Plato's time, for example by Anselm, Berkeley and Hume, they are not drama but just talking heads.

Any fan of French cinema will be used to characters discussing Plato or Descartes or Voltaire or Sartre in some café that resembles the Parisian intellectuals' Café de Flore or the Café Les Deux Magots. But these films are not really philosophical films but films that display some character's sophistication by having him or her talk about the views of some famous philosophers. More truly philosophical are those plays by the French Existentialists, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus which not merely often featured philosophers as characters in a play but explored philosophical themes. The French Théatre de l'Absurde, which had an influence on Beckett, had Existentialist themes at its core -- the non-existence of God, the denial of an after-life, the repudiation of objective moral values and so, in consequence, the absurdity of life.

My starting point is different. A title for what I am trying to achieve might be "the drama of a genuinely philosophical life". My goal is to connect philosophy and drama by focusing on the lives of philosophers. Thus I've been interested particularly in those philosophers, such as Socrates and Wittgenstein, who conspicuously lived by their philosophical beliefs when this was not an easy thing to do, and in those philosophers, such as Heidegger, who conspicuously separated their philosophical beliefs from their ordinary lives.

Given this approach, the big question is how can one generate drama about a philosopher that is true to his or her core ideas but is also alive and engaging? A philosopher is famous mainly because of some core texts which are almost always complex and difficult. So in dramatizing the life of a particular philosopher, the temptation is to avoid the philosophy and concentrate on the more sensational events, if any, in the philosopher's life. The film Iris, for example, is a brilliant piece of film-making about the novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch. But the film is about Iris Murdoch's relations with her husband, the literary critic John Bayley, and especially about the tensions in that relationship caused by Iris's gradual descent into the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer's disease. A viewer gets little or no sense that Iris was a famous novelist nor is provided with any clues about her philosophical ideas or ideals.

I'm convinced that a dramatic interweaving of the life and thought of a philosopher is possible. My play about Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein - The Crooked Roads, had its world premiére and subsequent performances in April-May 2011 at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, with both critical and box office success. At present I'm engaged in the pre-production planning for the world premiére of my play, Socrates and his Clouds, at the Jermyn Street Theatre in central London, an outfield throw from Piccadilly Circus, June 4 to June 22, 2013. So a word about that.

While there is not even one piece of philosophical writing published under Socrates' own name, he appears to have been such a memorable teacher of philosophy that he was written about by famous contemporaries such as Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes. What draws authors to Socrates is the single-minded intensity, integrity and dialectical force of his enquiry into the nature of the virtues, the ideals of education, the best way to organize a society and above all the best way for an individual to live his or her own life. But there have been many plays about Socrates, almost all concentrating on his trial and conviction on the twin charges of corrupting the youth and belittling the traditional religion, and so in turn on his subsequent death sentence and execution by poisoning. So I decided to avoid going down that well-trodden path. This led me to look at Aristophanes' famous debunking of Socrates in his play Clouds. Some critics have suggested that his depiction of Socrates as a sophistic charlatan and dithering buffoon seriously undermined Socrates' defence in his trial. I decided to give a different account of Socrates. So in Socrates and his Clouds I substitute someone more like the witty, wry and wise Socrates of Plato's dialogues for the buffoon of Aristophanes. I depict Socrates as aged 70, just before he is indicted but fully conscious of the fact that his enemies are closing in on him. While I borrow some of the characters and plot from Aristophanes' Clouds, my text is otherwise completely new and original, has a chorus of street buskers and lots of good jokes.

The young theatre company producing the play in London is Greek. The director is Melina Theocharidou, the designer Katerina Angelopoulou, and the music directors, Olivios Karaolides and Constantine Andronikou. This seems to me both timely and apt. Over the last two years that small nation, Greece, has been endlessly battered and belittled by the world's press. I hope that this Greek production about a famous Greek will remind us of the fact that Greece has been the source of so many of the great aspects of our western democratic culture.

What I have not yet mentioned is the dispiriting and wearying work of trying to raise sufficient sponsorship for this production. So if there are any kind souls out there who love theatre or philosophy, or both, and would also love to help sponsor this world premiére of Socrates and his Clouds, please contact me (at < wlyons@tcd.ie >). I should make it clear that I myself will neither be asking for nor accepting any form of fee, royalty or even expenses.

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